Short Conversations: Are the 4 Gospels based on eyewitness accounts?

Jesus and Pilate. All images are from Wikimedia Commons

Lord, liar, lunatic or legend?

This is a short-form, conversational style article of our previous post.

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Are the Gospels based on eyewitness accounts? 10 key considerations

There is nothing to indicate the authors of the Gospels thought they were eyewitnesses or using eyewitness testimony.

In John, the beloved disciple claims to be writing and testifying about the life of Jesus (John 21:24). Luke purports that his written account is based on eyewitness testimony he received (Luke 1:1–2).

The authors do not identify as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Hence, it is more likely these books were written by anonymous fabricators and not eyewitnesses.

Greek historian, Xenophon (Anabasis 3.1), and Jewish historian, Josephus (Jewish Wars 2.20.6), wrote in the third person concerning themselves. The testimony of early manuscripts for all four Gospels as well as early church father testimony on who wrote the four Gospels- consistently point to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the authors. This is despite this evidence coming from diverse geographic locations. The Book of Hebrews, which was likely truly anonymous, has conflicting evidence on who wrote it, both in manuscript traditions and early church writings. Even early enemies of Christianity, such as Celsus conceded the disciples wrote accounts concerning Jesus. It is higly unlikely Luke’s Gospel was anonymous given he had a patron. More here.

Were the 4 Gospels given FAKE names?


The disciples were uneducated so they could not write.

Matthew was a tax collector so he would have been literate. Mark and Luke were not disciples (Luke was a physician). Epictetus even referred to a man writing in an illiterate way (Discourses 2.9.10)! John could have improved his skills during his roles in the church over decades or easily instructed a scribe. John’s family had hired servants (Mark 1:19–20) so could likely have hired a scribe. Peter (1 Peter 5:12) and Paul (Rom. 16:22) used scribes.

The Gospels do not seem to be written by honest authors.

The Gospels contain many statements that were likely highly embarrassing to early Christians.

You wouldn’t make up a Messiah like Jesus who was humiliated, have females as the first evangelists in 1st century Palestine, Jesus buried by a man from an enemy group (Luke 23:50), Jesus calling his followers evil (Matt. 7:11), Jesus claiming God has forsaken him (Matt. 27:46), not knowing when he will return (Mark 13:32), rebuking Peter “get behind me Satan” (Mark 8:33), Peter denying Jesus (John 18:25–27), Thomas doubting Jesus (John 20:24–29), James and John rebuked by Jesus (Luke 9:51–56) and much more if you were trying to avoid embarrassing details.

Diogenes looking for an honest man

The 4 Gospels lack knowledge of Palestinian geography.

In an era where Google maps did not exist, The Gospel of Thomas mentions Judaea once but no other location. The Gospel of Judas names no locations. The Gospel of Philip names Jerusalem ( four times), Nazara/ Nazareth (once) and the Jordan (once). Meanwhile, Matthew refers to 90 places (towns, regions, bodies of water, other places etc), Mark 60, Luke 99 and John 76 (for more read Can We Trust the Gospels? by Peter J Williams).

Moreover, the Gospel authors knew Bethsaida and Capernaum are located by the Sea of Galilee, that you can go from the Sea of Galilee directly into hill country, there is a desert near the Jordan, going to Jerusalem is described as going up while leaving is going down, going from Cana to Capernaum is also going down, there are two routes between Judaea and Galilee and so forth. References here.

Williams 2018, p.41

The 4 Gospels don’t fit together very well so were likely made up and not based on reality.

We don’t just have one Gospel about the life of Jesus in the Bible. We have four. Moreover, within these four Gospels, we have different literary forms such as parables, pronouncement stories, sayings, stories concerning Jesus, miracle stories and so forth. The 4 Gospels each attest (multiple attestation criterion) that Jesus taught a realised eschatology where the kingdom of God was at hand, female witnesses were the first to see the empty tomb, Jesus had a divine self-understanding and claimed to be the Son of Man.

The different literary forms across the Gospels attest to (criterion of multiple forms) Jesus teaching about the kingdom of God, thinking he is the Son of God, on earth to save the lost, the judge of humanity etc. References here.

Moreover, the 4 Gospels have undesigned coincidences between them. Subtle details between accounts complement each other in such a way that it is more plausible to conclude these accounts were based on eyewitness testimony than later fabrications. Key undesigned coincidences we covered in the Gospels included two brothers, mending nets, green grass and festivals, Josephus and John the Baptist, inside Herod’s palace, evening healing session, tell no one, two sisters, Philip and the bakers, Bethsaida and a mighty work, destroying and rebuilding a temple, Jesus and Pilate etc. More here.

Undesigned Coincidences: Hidden Gems in the Gospels

Pool of Bethsaida

The 4 Gospels lack historical precision.

Scholar Richard Bauckham has compared the names in the Gospels to Jewish names in Palestine during that time and found remarkable similarities. The same cannot be said about the Gnostic Gospels.

Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 70.

Bauckham also contends the Gospel authors name certain individuals in their accounts (while leaving others anonymous) as they were known eyewitnesses to the audience. For example, Mark mentions (15:21) Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross of Jesus, stating he was the father of Alexander and Rufus (potentially same Rufus as Romans 16:13). This was because Alexander and Rufus were likely known to Mark’s audience.

Moreover, William Paley outlined 41 facts confirmed in the New Testament. Craig Blomberg outlined 59 confirmed or historically probable facts in the Gospel of John. There are incidental details in the Gospels concerning Archelaus, multiple chief priests, scourgings, tearing clothes for blasphemy, priests’ servants carrying clubs, Hallel (Psalms 113–118) hymns being sung at Passover which all complement accounts outside the Gospels concerning the time period of Jesus.

Furthermore, there have been numerous archaeological discoveries which support or likely support historical details in the Gospels such as the Pool of Bethsaida, location of Jacob’s well, existence of Caiaphas, James brother of Jesus, Apostle Philip’s tomb etc.

The Gospels were fabricated to address early church issues.

Jesus’ favourite title for himself, “Son of Man”, appears 81 times across the four Gospels in Greek- 30 times in Matthew, 14 times in Mark, 25 times in Luke and 12 in John (Caragounis, 1986). Yet in the rest of the New Testament this is only ever used to address Jesus on 3 occasions and only another 3 occasions in early church writings outside the Bible in the first 120 years following Jesus (Habermas and Licona, 2004).

Moreover, the Gospels fail to address many key issues which existed in the rest of the New Testament and the early church such as whether or not Gentiles should be circumcised, the role of spiritual gifts, requirements for church leaders, eating food sacrificed to idols, when to celebrate Easter (not in NT but early church issue) etc.

Other short conversations by Street Theologian:

Did Jesus rise from the dead?

Did Jesus think he is God?

Are modern Bible translations wildly corrupted?

How did we get the Bible?

Muslims on the Trinity

Seventh Day Adventists on the Sabbath

Trinity in the Old Testament?

Pre Trib Rapture is Fiction Only

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